01 January 2010

2010: The Year of If

You know it's going to be an uncertain year when it starts with people arguing over whether or not we've started a new decade. So if we can't settle that, then any predictions are built on pretty shaky ground. Which is why I'm calling 2010 "The Year of If", as you'll be able to see things mapped out, but they'll all be conditional on less certain events.

SNP

So what does 2010 hold for the party of the Scottish Government? I'd say further progress, and the question is how much. You would expect the SNP to take advantage of Labour's decline - and it will - but Labour will attempt to paint the election as a choice between Brown and Cameron. Now, personally, I'd have thought that such a choice would have voters flocking to other parties in their droves, but a particularly polarising campaign could restrict the amount of opportunities open to the SNP. Similarly, you might expect the party's right flank (and seats in Tayside) to be vulnerable to the Cameron effect, but seeing as it hasn't materialised in Scotland, my money's on the SNP seeing off a Tory challenge. And on the one hand, the LibDems and SNP occupied similar political ground in 2005 but the LibDems had the benefit of a wider media profile, but the LibDem political ground has shifted and that gives the SNP a little more breathing room. So in the General Election, the SNP will advance, and the only question is how far. The 20-seat target set just under two years may have provided a hostage to fortune, but there's no doubt that SNP tails are still up.

At Holyrood, things may not go so smoothly. For the Budget, there's no hope of co-operation with Labour (they'll vote the Budget own over GARL) or the LibDems (regardless of what's in there, they'll do anything to annoy Alex Salmond). But the Tories will, for now, be amenable as their present consideration is that they do not want to put Labour into Bute House just as they're trying to eject Labour from Downing Street. That will stand, but once the Tories are in Downing Street, the landscape will change, relations may sour as the two Governments get into confrontations. So it will, once again, hinge on the Greens and it is in the interests of the SNP to listen to them very carefully.

However, with the exception of the Budget, co-operation will be thin on the ground as parties first get into Westminster election mode, then shift gears and get ready for the 2011 Election, so unless the SNP Whips know something the rest of us don't the Referendum Bill is vulnerable. But with a referendum enjoying popular support, and with the opposition policy of "Not this referendum Bill and not now" being vulnerable to fairly obvious cries of "What Referendum Bill and when?", a reverse will work in the SNP's favour.

Labour

Can you hear the ticking of the Great Clock? It's just a couple of minutes until midnight now. I see no way back for Labour and their only consolation is that the defeat might not be as bad as it might have been. But what made the Tory wilderness years so bad, and the start of Labour's time as Scottish Opposition so cringeworthy wasn't the defeat itself, but the party's reaction to it. Firstly, the jockeying for positions began before the election took place, so the parties went into the contest divided. Secondly, the parties turned completely inward and started rowing with each other in the aftermath. If Labour can avoid that, they might be back on their feet by 2011.

But the signs aren't good: Charles Clarke's trying to get Gordon Brown booted out again, there are rumours that Lord Mandelson is Unhappy. So it all hinges on a good clean Leadership contest after the election, with principles and policy at the heart of it. Unfortunately, it's going to boil down to cliques and the losing side will spend the next Parliamentary term huffing and sniping at the new Leadership, as now.

This will provide a double-edged sword for Labour at Holyrood. On the one hand, MSPs will get caught up in the in-fighting and if the new Leadership isn't enamoured with Iain Gray then he has a problem. On the other hand, if he backs the right horse, he might just cement his position. On the one hand, the departure of Jim Murphy as the effective Leader of Scottish Labour (he will either lose his seat or become Shadow Work & Pensions Secretary) will bolster Gray's profile and make him the face of Scottish Labour. On the other hand, that will force him to up his game, and if he messes up, he has no backup and no support. In a year when Iain Gray will be trying to convince us of his First Ministerial qualities (not starting sentences, "If I was First Minister..." would help), he won't need the chaos that will be going on all around him.

Conservatives

This should be a year to celebrate for the Tories, yet victory will come with a bitter aftertaste. Firstly, the enormity of the challenge they face will become very clear very quickly - I expect George Osborne's net approval rating to be something along the lines of -50% by Christmas. Secondly, the polls suggest that we're not heading for a 1997-style landslide (the Tory majority will be around 20 seats). Thirdly, this means that Cameron will have to choose between ignoring his right-wing backbenchers and losing votes in the Commons or losing the centre ground, costing the Tories votes and seats in the next Election, which may be sooner than we think - late Summer 2012 or early Spring 2013. So it will not be a happy return to Government for the Tories.

Of course, if the Tories at Westminster think they have it bad, try being a Scottish Tory! It's fairly obvious that David Mundell will not find himself Secretary of State and the words "Lord McLetchie of Morningside" appear to hove into view. Further, Scottish Tories will find themselves under pressure: on the one hand, relations between Cameron and Alex Salmond won't take long to degrade as the two Governments will blatantly wish to pull in opposite directions. On the other, the Tories will still want to keep Iain Gray out of Bute House.

This will have the greatest impact on the MSPs, who will be forced to pick one side or another: they'll either have to row with their own party, or be branded apologists for the new anti-Scottish Tory Government. But there is a way out: the election looks like yielding the slimmest of slim pickings and you will probably be able to count the Scottish Tory delegation to Westminster on one hand. The Cameron effect has never taken hold in Scotland and there are signs that Annabel Goldie's habit for keeping the ship steady and doing acceptably but no better than that is starting to wear. It may be that the Scottish Tories are de-merged with the UK Party and an arrangement not overly dissimilar to UCUNF in Northern Ireland is established, or it may be that Annabel Goldie is ditched and replaced with Murdo Fraser, with Derek Brownlee as his Deputy. Or, indeed, it may be both.

Liberal Democrats

This might be the year to be neither the Tories nor Labour, but the problem is that for too long, the only thing to stand out as far as the LibDems are concerned is Vince Cable's knack for prophesying economic doom. Aside from that, they've got nothing to go on and if the election polarises, it's the LibDems who have the most to lose, with their voters picking a side. How well they survive depends on how well they stand out and I don't have much hope of them doing that.

And at Holyrood? More obscurity, I'm afraid, and it'll be self-inflicted. At least their friends at Westminster do occasionally produce a distinctive policy or two, but Tavish Scott et al need to be told that hating Alex Salmond isn't a policy. What do the Scottish LibDems have to say on tax? "We hate Alex Salmond". Education? "We hate Alex Salmond". Health? "We hate Alex Salmond". Crime? "We hate Alex Salmond". The constitution? "We hate Alex Salmond". Fine, we get that you don't like the FM. But a political party needs to be based on something more than a visceral hatred of another man and with LibDems sounding more and more like they'd rather people voted Labour than LibDem just to dish out a bloody nose to the SNP, it does make you wonder if they could do to just merge with Labour and have done with it. But even Labour have the occasional flash of a policy. Tavish Scott offers nothing and I don't see a change in approach or emphasis a this year. Or, for those post-2011 optimists among us, next year either. They might, at some point, attempt to bring a Minister down. Then they'll blame the Tories for not playing when they fail.

Greens

This is the year of groundwork for the Greens, and with a very real possibility of Caroline Lucas entering Westminster this year, this is a chance for their profile to skyrocket. Of course, Robin Harper is to stand for the Greens in Edinburgh East - he won't be successful, but there's method in this: possibly a Green Constituency candidate in Edinburgh Central as well as Glasgow Kelvin in 2011, which is the year that counts for the Scottish Greens.

But it will come down to Patrick Harvie to back or bin the Budget, once again. After last year's fiasco, everyone will be wiser to proceedings and that will be to his benefit more than anyone else's. This will give him extra traction come 2011.

The one note of caution is this: beware another Green false dawn! In 2005, the Scottish Greens fielded 19 candidates and kept three deposits, so over-inflated expectations along the lines of every candidate keeping their deposit are to be avoided: that isn't likely to happen. The 2009 result became a disappointment when it shouldn't have been - that's the risk the Greens face this time as well. An otherwise respectable result may seem like a setback, simply because it seemed like momentum was building.

6 comments:

silly old blogger said...

There's absolutely no doubt at all about whether we've started a new decade - we haven't !

Think about it - when you start numbering years (or anything else for that matter)you don't call the first one 0; no, you call it 1. So the first decade consists of the years 1 to 10, and the second includes the years 11 to 20.

Thus the next decade starts on Jan 1st 2011. QED

Al said...

"...costing the Tories votes and seats in the next Election, which may be sooner than we think - late Summer 2012 or early Spring 2013"

Will, I must admit that I am rather confused by this statement - why must the Tories (assuming that they come out with a majority in this years GE) call an election by early 2013? Surely they can delay an election by five years as Gordon Brown appears to have done, thus delaying a general election until 2015?

Will said...

Ah, but Al, remember that a PM can call an election whenever he wishes at any time and for any reason before those five years are up, and there are a number of circumstances in which Cameron may feel an early poll is in his interests.

First, it may quell a backbench rebellion: either it will be a way of ejecting more troublesome members of the party, a way of bringing everyone back to heel, or simply a chance to seek a fresh mandate from the people on a policy that's causing a row on his own side.

Second, depending on the final result, it's possible that Cameron's majority might well have evaporated by then. All it might take is a couple of defections to either UKIP or the Liberal Democrats (depending on what course Cameron plots in government) and a couple of By-Election losses and that's the end of his majority.

Third, it's not entirely impossible that the Labour party could be in a state of maximum disarray at this point. Waiting much longer would give them a chance to recover and galvanise in time for an expected election in 2014-15. Going when Labour aren't ready, or capitalising on a temporary feel-good factor that may be around at that time (for example, in the unlikely event that England were to win Euro 2012) would be sneaky, but the outcome might prove favourable.

Silly old blogger, you're right, but we worked the calendar backwards (and given that Christ, on whose life the calendar is based, was supposedly born in 4 BC, got it slightly out). So the decades are based on an arbitrary point anyway which has been further warped by the shift from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, a change to when we consider the new year to start anyway so I think the various amounts of hand-wringing re the decade boundary to be slightly futile...

Rab o'Ruglen said...

Hi JRM,

I agree with you on many points principally why would anybody in Scotland vote Lib Dem? I am interested in politics and I no longer have a clue what they stand for except, like you, I have devined from their actions that they hate Alex Salmond. They have oscillated backwards and forwards over almost everything I thought was a given in their philosophy in order to avoid supporting the SNP, 'till that visceral hatred of Alex is all that is left. Not nearly good enough.

Similarly I don't think the Tories at Westminster, although winning a majority, will be able to form a stable government even in the medium term. It is all they can do currently to aviod fighting like ferrets in a sack, and that is before the election.
They proved under Major to be an unmanageable rabble of conflicting self-interests and I don't think really that there has been any fundamental change under Cameron, except that they have moved even further to the right.
Though unstated, their only discernable policy seem to be "our snouts in the trough this time" oh and of course cut, cut, cut. Not good enough.

Contrast that with the really excellent endeavours of the SNP in government in Holyrood for the good of the whole People of Scotland and it is clear who I support.

All the best for the New Year, whichever decade it might fall in.

Regards,

Ted Harvey said...

Interesting scoping stuff Will (and meantime a Happy New Year). My first point is that the impending and massive public expenditure cutbacks are likely to be, outside of the UK election, the most significant factor in Scotland over the next two years.

You usefully recall Labour’s inability to address reality in the aftermath of the SNP win at the last Scottish General Election. I can see no reason to expect anything other than a re-run of this should they loose at the upcoming UK general election.

The sad lesson I learned from the Labour debacle in Scotland is that the Party/the Movement has become and arrogant and deeply unlearning entity. I listened to Gordon Brown on BBC TV yesterday morning and heard an wholly arrogant and rigid persona seemingly detached from reality, and I think that he directly reflected the state of his Government and Party (mind you, he fairly wiped the floor with Andrew Marr).

Sufficient has been said by other posters about the Lib Dems.

On your point about the Tories not wanting Labour in Scotland when they have just got Cameron in at Westminster… I wonder. There’s plenty of middle Englanders with a growing lack of sympathy (or a growing disdain?) for the perceived ‘whinging, subsidy junky Scots’. I could see an Alex Salmond SNP Government adding to Cameron’s problems on handling this situation.

Conversely, he may see merit in a Scotland run by Labour; especially under the, with all due respect, second-rater Iain Grey. (If anyone grudges me that opinion, just remember his and his party’s tawdry role in blocking the alcohol price increases proposals by the SNP Government.)

A Scotland under the baleful ‘leadership’ of an Iain Grey would be taken seriously by almost nobody in England (whether Tory or Labour). It would be a significantly easier target for a, disproportionate, share of the public expenditure cutbacks that must come. In this context, an Alex Salmond SNP would be a far more dangerous entity than an Iain Grey Scottish Labour.

But that last point brings me back to my first. How well will the SNP navigate the maelstrom of the imminent ballooning of public expenditure cutbacks such as we have certainly not seen since Thatcher… and probably not since the 1920s Slump?

The SNP has already lost much goodwill across the community and voluntary sectors in Scotland through its deal-with-the-devil-of-COSLA involving the ending of ring fence funding, handing such matters over wholesale to the wondrous other-world of Community Planning, and meantime abandoning its commitment to meaningful community empowerment.

These disillusioned and sometimes embittered community and voluntary sector players are the same ones that will lose out badly over the impending cutbacks.

Meantime, I must confess that I’m rather bemused about what is described as ‘the business sector’ in Scotland and its asserted ‘disappointment’ with the SNP Government. Just what more can they expect at this time other than truly savagely deeper public expendititure cutbacks?

Then there is the ‘we will not co-operate on anything’ attitude of the other parties in Holyrood that you pointed out.

This all makes, for me, the navigation of the public expenditure cutbacks the decisive factor in how things pan out in Scotland over the next two years.

Ted Harvey said...

Re possible pre-election divisions in Labour – I’ve just heard to Patricia Hewitt on lunch time BBC radio news about her and Geoff Hoon texting to every Labour MP for a referendum on Gordon Brown’s leadership. She was utterly absurd to the extent of insulting anyone who listed to her.

She repeatedly argued that the referendum demand was not an attack on Brown; instead it was to get this ‘all settled’ and to end all the ‘backbiting’ and distractions! To (roughly) quote Labour MP John McFaul shortly afterwards ‘ what she said in this interview made no sense to me’.

Is this the point at which many electors just wholly lose belief in Gordon Brown’s Government – and already are sown the seeds of tribal war in the Party that break out after the inevitable election defeat?